Berlin is a bureaucratic nightmare and, as The Economist magazine reported, a city that is dysfunctional on many different levels. In debt for nearly 60 billion Euros, Berlin drains more from the national account than it contributes, which is unusual in Europe where national capitals are usually the main economic drivers. In this mess, a major contributor to the dysfunctional reality of Berlin’s existence—its cultural geography—deserves attention.
Geographic factors have played an instrumental role in Berlin’s fate during the post-World War II era. It was transformed from a central imperial city into a peripheral city functionally divided into two cities (and countries) during the Cold War era. Nearly thirty years since German reunification, the legacy of division and isolation remains evident in its cultural geography. To the rest of the country Berlin almost seems like a dysfunctional relative unwilling to clean up his/her act, yet cannot be ignored because of strong family ties.
What may come as surprise to many, Berlin has a geographic identity crisis. Its fate will continue to be tied to the geographic factors that have greatly influenced its evolution, unless it manages to overcome them.
From Within: Unifying (?) Element
A local person can quickly answer a plethora of questions regarding the city, except one: “What is Berlin’s unifying element?” What it is that unifies the city into a single clearly defined urban area, not just administrative (functional), but vernacular (people perceived), is difficult to answer. This is also a question many tourists—from millions of them who visit annually—are eager to learn in their search for the city center on a map. Meanwhile, they spend their vacation exploring all the historically dividing features, from Checkpoint Charlie to the East Side Gallery and other remnants of the Berlin Wall.
Figure 1. Often photographed, the Berlin Needle dominates the area around the Alexanderplatz, because it stands out in the landscape, rather than representing a culturally unifying element for Berlin. (All photographs were taken by the author.)
Administratively, a city center can be wherever the government decides it to be. That does not mean, however, that people will acknowledge and confirm it with their perceptions and actions. For them, the heart of the city may be in an entirely different area. Berlin illustrates this very division. Alexanderplatz area, the city’s assumed center, is for the vast majority of Berlin’s residents an area to pass through rather than to get to. Many of them do not pass through it for years, particularly those who live in residential neighborhoods of former West Berlin like Charlottenburg or Wilmersdorf, a twenty-minute train ride from Alexanderplatz.
Berlin is not just a city, it is also one of sixteen German federal states and the seat of Federal Government. Some people may answer that the unifying factor is everything that exists within the city’s boundary with the federal state of Brandenburg. But if you pause for a moment and think that a specific physical constraint—Berlin is entirely surrounded by Brandenburg—is a valid explanation of what unifies a geographic area, then a prison complex is not a farfetched geographic analogy here. For the former West Berliners, who remember being entirely surrounded by a wall that also followed the city’s outside boundaries, this may hold true even more. Furthermore, considering that the majority of local residents seldom change apartments they rent, often remaining in same flats for decades, it may not seem surprising why the prison-type self-imposed perceptions surface.
The city’s motorway transportation infrastructure network also illustrates the described conditions. Berlin’s major development began in previous centuries around an artificial network of canals and the river Spree. One could still use waterways to travel to open seas via the Spree and Oder rivers and into the Baltic Sea. An extensive railroad network followed—with many of the routes eventually becoming the S-Bahn system in the twentieth century—surrounding the city. Getting into, throughout and out of Berlin via railway is a breeze.
On the other hand, arriving in or leaving Berlin via automobile is an experience few enjoy. Only two multi-lane highway-speed freeways exist in a city of nearly four million residents, both of them passing through former West Berlin (numbered 100/101/113/115 in different areas) quite far from the “city center”. To reach the road of never-ending construction, Berlin Ring Road (Highway 10, which of course is in Brandenburg), a traveler needs a lot of patience even if leaving from peripheral neighborhoods.
Figure 2. Google Maps’ image of Berlin and its road network. Note the absence of “blue” numbered roads (highways) in nearly all former East Berlin, the demographically and economically most rapidly growing area of the city.
It is very difficult to exit Berlin rapidly. The current pattern is the product of the Cold War relationship between East and West Germany and is yet another example of geographic containment. Yet we need to keep in mind that we are in 2018, not 1988. Improvements in this regard should have been already made to “open” the city. The absence of a post-reunification high-speed road network in Berlin’s proper (including for commercial transportation reasons) does not suggest that roadways were a priority in decision makers’ minds and actions. Meanwhile, they poured billions of Euros into construction of an airport (also in Brandenburg) that is branded as one of Germany’s most embarrassing failures.
From Outside: Core and Periphery
This year, 2018, marks the first entire year in which residents of Germany’s capital city have been living longer without the Berlin Wall, rather than within its confines. Erection of the Berlin Wall began in 1961, physically separating East and West until 1989 and subsequent German reunification in 1990. It is 1945, however, that played an instrumental role in the spatial importance of this city in a larger contemporary context. The Allies’ decision to move the German-Polish boundary westward was a large contributor to the transition of an imperial city into an isolated island in the countryside. From what used to be a large area and linkage network of German territory east of Berlin suddenly stopped only thirty miles from the city. Subsequent political divisions and the establishment of the German Democratic Republic brought the imperial city from the core of Germany’s economic geographic system and relegated it to the periphery.
Despite its population being much larger than that of other large German cities, and holding the status of the country’s capital, Berlin also remains a peripheral afterthought in terms of the country’s economic growth. Rather than opening the city geographically, influencing connectivity and overcoming entrenched challenges noted in this essay, the decision- makers tried to infuse development from outside. This led to a major mistake in the process of Berlin’s revitalization—the failure to move the city from the periphery closer to the center by, broadly speaking, bringing Germany to Berlin instead Berlin to Germany. Not even Berlin and Brandenburg became linked into an efficient and productive economic geographic network.
Figure 3. Berlin metropolitan area—circled in red—in relation to the rest of Germany. The majority of German economic power is located in the south and west. Note the proximity of Germany’s border with Poland.
Figure 4. Across the remnants of the Berlin Wall, at the East Side Gallery, physical construction continues while options for spatial access and movement remain stagnant, creating additional constraints in that regard.
If they have to choose between continuity and radical change, risk averse Germans would overwhelmingly opt for the former. They can be great in manufacturing hardware for internet connection, but are embarrassingly inefficient in the information technology (IT) revolution and infrastructure development. Structured and linear development and implementation of ideas, consistency over creativity (“That’s how it’s always been done” approach), and fear of failure for changing established way of thinking, are cultural traits deeply engraved into German society.
Figure 6. Risk aversion and focus on linear development during the information technology revolution is almost ironically illustrated by this landscape feature in central Berlin; i.e., waiting for the tree to align with the windows in order to provide shade may not be the most sustainable option.
In short, the Germans love to make and follow rules, but only the rules they create; otherwise, they display significant irritability. As a result, an inability to anticipate unexpected changes and rapidly adjust to them has been a major shortcoming of modern German society in an era of extremely rapid global socioeconomic transformation. The most recent stage of Berlin’s evolution illustrates this problem.
[Information technology infrastructure lags behind other developed countries so much that the issue had to be listed in a ruling coalition’s agreement main points in order to even form the coalition.]
Berlin’s IT milieu has been rapidly growing for years, and continues to grow and attract talent from all over the world. But this development had very little to do with a formal decision making process. Entrepreneurs and IT companies have shown interest and greatly expanded the local start up scene, relocated operations to the city, and engaged in various ventures independently from the government. This growth was organic. Affordable rent and available space for operations were among the most significant aspects of Berlin’s attractiveness. It became attractive because it was inexpensive and available.
Having not anticipated changes in terms of population and IT business growth, Berlin is now struggling with understanding and anticipating an outcome from all this interest, creating yet another set of problems in how to do urban planning and development. Inexpensive and available are conditions that are rapidly fading away. More and more economic migrants are highly skilled professionals. Residential and commercial real estate prices are following the trend and rising fast. People relocating to Berlin to do business demand efficiency, real efficiency not just often-repeated mythical German efficiency. Investors expect integration of disparate spatial units into an effective urban cultural geographic system, which will have to be delivered in order for Berlin to remain competitive. It may be too optimistic to expect that to happen any time soon.
Identity Search in New Era
Thus far it appears that the German capital city will face challenges not too dissimilar to what I described in Deconstructing Seattle’s Construction:
“This form of an artificial geographic affiliation is not unusual for rapidly-growing cities or regions experiencing an identity crisis. For a geographically peripheral location like Seattle—compared to the country’s leading demographic, economic, and political centers—one way of attempting to address the crisis is developing a sense of belonging to a specific cultural and geographic context. Yet it takes a considerable amount of time for a place to develop a unique identity by which it is identified both by local residents and outsiders.”
Like Seattle, contemporary Berlin evolved upon a strong blue collar foundation as a city of the working class. Similarly to Seattle, it is the force of modern economic development that is providing major opportunities and challenges in Berlin. Both cities have a history and geography of constraints, Seattle for its physical setting and Berlin from administrative/political decisions. They equally dealt with extended periods of economic stagnation just to be surprised by and unprepared for sudden improvements infused from elsewhere. Both are formed by neighborhoods that are focused more around their own identity than the city’s overall vision of evolution.
The big difference between the two cities, however, is that Seattle’s current dysfunctionality is a product of a typical American mentality pattern of relaxing the rules when they needed to be followed. Berlin, on the other hand, is currently dysfunctional for precisely the opposite reason, the typical German tradition of following the rules when they needed to be relaxed. This is particularly significant in the context of their evolution as cultural geographic systems, but is hardly ever appropriately addressed.
Measurement of Outcome
Perhaps the most recent development related fiasco—water leakage through the concrete foundation of the brand new Bundestag (Federal Parliament) building—is costing millions of additional Euros more than anticipated. And that is just to fix the leak (symptom) and not the overall structural integrity (cause). It serves as, perhaps, an appropriate analogy to the consequences of historical decisions that rendered Berlin a dysfunctional urban system, which prevented its socioeconomic potential to evolve fully. A two steps forward with one step backward approach, while continuously fixing initial mistakes, is still considered progress, yet at a much slower rate than if consequences were anticipated, understood, and addressed in the first place.